Putting the Theory Back in 'Music Theory'

Jeremy Day-O'Connell


What is music theory? This foundational question is scarcely even broached in textbooks and classrooms, and that fact has allowed naive views to persist among students and teachers alike. This state of affairs has also perpetuated an unfortunate disconnectedness in institutional and disciplinary conceptions of music theory, including through the devaluing of music theory "fundamentals." In this essay, I argue for a purposeful centering of theory as an intellectual enterprise; I describe a subtle reformulation of elementary music theory that celebrates its epistemological essence and methodological complexities; and I identify meta-theoretical issues that can be seamlessly introduced early in the music theory curriculum without compromising the delivery of content itself. I begin by describing a classroom discussion prompt that motivates a working definition of "theory" in general, which in turn can be leveraged throughout the music theory curriculum. I then describe several interactive lessons that highlight the theoretical underpinnings of certain venerable topics in tonal music. The study of music theory, even from the very first rudiments, is thus transformed from a stern rite of passage mired in dry technicalities, into an expansive intellectual endeavor—reminding students that they themselves are theorists, both in class and in life.


music theory; pedagogy; epistemology; intervals; harmony; rhythm and meter

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.18061/es.v7i0.7368


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